All photos by Geoff Fitzgerald/property of Pax Global Media
While it may seem like yesterday to some, the world of 1994 was a very different place: a globe on the verge of a profound transformation, thanks to a then-recent concept called the internet which was about to go mainstream.
Much like the world at large, the travel industry of 25 years ago was similarly poised for change at the hands of the World Wide Web; it’s perhaps fitting, then, that 1994 also marked the debut of Travel Professionals International (TPI), which would introduce a new agency model that would, in some ways, anticipate the effects of the internet on the traditional travel agent.
And as most industry disruptions go, it would take an outsider to apply a new approach – in this case, it was TPI Founder and Chairman Morris Chia leading the charge, transitioning from the declining fur industry to the world of travel.
“We actually started in an old fur storage facility in 1994 – it wasn’t converted yet to an office space!” Chia recalls. “The previous business I was involved in had a small travel element – we moved a team from city to city and ended up spending $500,000. But my wife and I also have a passion for travel, which is the typical comment from folks like us getting involved in the industry because we love it!"
That new approach would involve taking office duties off the shoulders of travel agents so that they could focus on selling, subsequently introducing the concept of the independent agent to the Canadian market and creating a network of affiliated agents with enhanced freedom and flexibility to sell travel on their own schedule.
An evolving role
It’s interesting to note that the travel agency approach introduced by TPI coincided with the advent of the online age and seemingly predicted the impact the internet would have on travel agents in just a few short years: with a world-wide resource for travellers to conduct research and, eventually, make their own bookings, the role of the agent would need to evolve from a purely transactional position to that of a knowledgeable and trusted advisor.
“I saw back in the 1990s, agents had the power because of GDS,” Chia says. “Their skill sets were not yet developed to get to know customers better – to know exactly what their customers wanted and all of the follow-up and touch points that other industries have moved forward. That was what made me realize that we can further enable them by having all of the back-office services handled so that agents can focus on selling.”
Chia points to the Canadian real estate sector for an example of the approach he has brought to the travel world.
“ReMAX is a great example, where their agents are focused on dealing with customers and the office maintains all of the licensing and administration, and really put most of the revenue back to the agents that are producing it.”
The right team
While he’s now an industry veteran, Chia explains that his former status as a travel newcomer has shaped his approach to leadership and management.
To that end, following a realignment of TPI’s sales and marketing team in 2017, Chia brought on travel industry veteran Zeina Gedeon as CEO, bringing years of industry experience from TravelBrands and Air Canada Vacations to the role.
“I have an easy job!” Gedeon tells PAX. “The leadership team is really good; they understand the advisors and more importantly, they’re always learning, which allows them to help the advisors even more. If they’re too close-minded, it doesn’t help the advisors or TPI.”
That focus on education and agent support – spearheaded by a leadership team that have all previously served as travel advisors - has paid off for several TPI agents, who are welcomed into the network’s Chairman’s Circle for annual sales of $2 million or more. Chia and Gedeon explain that the education aspect at TPI has focused on several niches – including cruise, luxury and adventure travel – to help agents boost their selling power and expand their client base.
Looking back on 25 years of success, Chia notes the industry’s changing opinion of independent agents; while “outside agents” were once an addendum to a travel agency’s retail operations, the market has since shifted gears to view these agents as an integral part of the travel landscape, evidenced by the growth of the home-based market over the years.
“It’s interesting to look at 25 years ago when there was so much resistance to today, when everyone wants to be like us,” Chia says. “We’ve almost become mainstream; back then we weren’t. We were ‘the other company.’ Now everyone wants a piece of that.
“I’m most pleased that it gives the compensation back to the advisors. Back then, no one earned $100,000. $200,000? It was unheard of! The advisors work their butts off to generate those numbers and they’re getting rewarded for it. We’re part of that process to help them earn that kind of money.”
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